In the summer of 1963, I graduated from Montgomery Blair High School, named, we were taught, for Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general. Much later I learned he was also the abolitionist lawyer arguing vigorously, if vainly, before the Supreme Court that since the slave called Dred Scott was in the free state of Maryland, he ceased being a slave. Oh, that Montgomery Blair.
In the summer of ’63 I was a temporary secretary at the United States Department of Labor, having passed typing and shorthand tests, and sworn not to overthrow the government. In return, I got paid to spend eight weeks working for smart, committed women and men trying to legislate racism out of the workplace.
In the summer of ’63 I was 17, still a virgin and about to enter the University of Maryland, then a financial and academic haven for under-funded underachievers like me. I was thrilled to leave the childhood home I shared with my brother and Old World father in Silver Spring for Centreville South, one of the new high-rise girls’ dorms, even if “gentlemen callers” were confined to the lobby and we had to wear skirts or dresses to the dining hall.
In the summer of ’63, the Groer family nearly always had dinner together, and my father nearly choked when I announced I would march. As a European socialist and union organizer who emigrated to escape Hitler, he believed every American, regardless of color or creed, deserved an equal break. As the alarmist solo parent of a rebellious girl-child, he fervently wished I’d go to the movies that Wednesday.
“It won’t be safe, there could be trouble. You’ll get hurt.”
(It will be peaceful. The whole idea is non-violence.)
“You’ll lose your job if your bosses see you.”
(I’ll quit the day before. At least I have a job. This march is to change things for people who can’t get hired even if they’re qualified.)
“I absolutely forbid you to go alone.”
(I’ll be with Gale from Blair, and some college guys camping in her parents’ basement). I never told my father I’d dubbed the Brooklyn-Bronx-and-Queens quartet of Billy Abikoff, Tony Freedman, Arnie Stein man, and Davey Yohalem “the fast New York Jewish Boys.”
Gale’s father drove us all within a mile of the White House, and watched as we started to march. And chant. And sing. And smile. God, how we beamed at the possibility of it all.
“The thing I most remember, it was so hot and we were all sharing things with people we didn’t know,” says Abikoff, today a University of Connecticut math professor. He and Steinman would soon be featured in the New York Times for their Polytechnic University of Brooklyn project to help quadriplegics use their tongues to operate a radio, a TV, even an electric typewriter. “That’s what we did. We were nerds who invented things.
“I distinctly remember sharing a cigarette at the march, talking to folks around us about seeing a wonderful tomorrow,” Abikoff continues. “When I said, not particularly quietly, ‘it’s going to be a long night before that wonderful tomorrow.’ I got glaring looks from people who thought the march would quickly make everything all right.”
Yet he left Washington with “a willingness to devote time and energy to social causes. First it was civil rights, and within a very short time, it was Vietnam.”
Freedman, a political science student at City College of New York, remembers “the most extraordinary day, the most exhilarating experience. It was my first shared experience with thousands of people. There was a remarkable sense of good feeling among every one. The seriousness of the event was very quickly taken over by the joy. There was nothing ironic, nothing cynical.” Today he is a Holland and Knight law partner specializing in federal housing programs.
As a rising Blair senior, Gale Closter Nigrosh was the youngest among us. Her most vivid memory was a fleeting brush with Mary Travers, the impossibly blonde chanteuse of folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. In what she terms “one of the most embarrassing stories I’ll ever tell about myself,” Closter Nigrosh confesses missing the “I Have a Dream” speech because she and Freedman were cooling off in the Reflecting Pool.
When school resumed, she often demonstrated in Annapolis for Maryland’s contentious public accommodation laws. Watching the news with her father one night, he lectured, ‘If you’re going to picket, at least spell the word “accommodation” correctly on your sign.’ It has two Cs and two Ms,” says the retired educator who taught at Clark University before creating public-private-educational partnerships in Worcester, Mass.
What did I, Annie Groer, daughter of Polish immigrants, learn on Aug. 28? Plenty. I was awed to meet so many people who’d been jailed, beaten, or barred from places I took for granted, but who pushed back again and again.
Still euphoric into September, I moved into the dorm and put a large souvenir march poster in my window. “We Demand Decent Housing Now,” it read, though not for long. The housemother ripped it up lest I further defame Centreville South’s clean, well-lighted image. We clashed again after she warned the entire dorm about protesting segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s campus speech during his1964 White House run. For daring to ask how the university could blithely steamroll our Constitutional right to peaceful assembly, I was ordered to the dean’s office.
Not long afterward, I changed my major from secondary English education to journalism, joined the campus daily and never looked back as we moved Homecoming Queen candidates to the back pages and filled the front page with civil rights and anti-Vietnam news.
Another march dividend was a lifetime of friendship with Gale, Tony, Billy and Arnie. Sadly, Davey died in 1990. His Times obit described a life worthy of Dr. King: Peace Corps stints in Togo and Sierra Leone, and a career with international aid agencies developing rural water, sanitation and health projects throughout Africa.
I have just one regret. I should have made my father join us. He would have loved the soaring oratory. And he certainly wouldn’t have torn up my “We Demand Decent Housing Now” sign.